The commercialization of Christmas is indirectly explored in writer/director Emilio Portes’ pitch-black supernatural comedy Pastorela, a limited release this past weekend from Lionsgate.
In Portes’ film, there is no such thing as a clear-cut message. In fact, the line is pretty blurry between the film being a spirited satire of the sterilization of the holidays and being blasphemy for humor’s sake. The end result is messy, imaginative and really quite fun. It may not become a runaway horror holiday hit like last year’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, but Pastorela, an export from Mexico’s thriving film community, deserves to be sought out by genre hounds hungry for a bit of yuletide fun.
In Mexican tradition, the Nativity Play is the cornerstone of the holidays. In almost every town, a different version is put on with a cast of amateur actors donning fancy costumes and reenacting the story of Christmas. In every version of the play, Satan makes an appearance to tempt the righteous and eventually be punished for his wickedness. As with any charismatic villain, the character of Satan in the traditional Nativity Play is a popular one. Everybody wants to be the bad guy.
Special Agent Jesus Juarez (Chucho to his friends) has played the role of Satan in his town’s Nativity Play for as long as most can remember. He knows the lines by heart and has had a special costume custom tailored for his build. In fact, the tall, bulky man with a stylish goatee and a deep, booming voice is fond of pointing out that he was born to play the devil.
When a change in pastors at the church results in the role of Satan being recast and Chucho left with no use for his pitchfork and horns, he decides to take matters into his own hands and convince Padre Mundo, the new pastor, that he really is the only obvious choice to play Satan — even if he has to literally become a demon to do so.
The film’s use of escalation (bad decisions leading to worse consequences) makes for a spirited exploration into why people truly get into the holidays. Pastorela delves deep into the Mexican tradition of the Nativity Play but it is most assuredly not a spiritual film. For Chucho, his obsession with playing the devil has more to do with pride, vanity and a stubborn unwillingness to put aside his fancy red costume. In fact, Chucho is involved with the church for all the wrong reasons. But so is everybody else in the film, it seems.
Portes’ film takes an irreverent look at people’s yuletide obsessions by turning one town’s struggle to put together a Nativity Play into an epic tale of the supernatural where good versus evil is played out in the sidelines — unbeknownst to the film’s characters who are all too busy fighting over who gets to wear fake horns.
Pastorela, if anything, suffers a bit from schizophrenia in its tone – but this only helps to highlight the film’s atypical approach to portraying horror. While the movie is frequently a supernatural gorefest horror film — with vomit-heavy demon possessions, decapitations and an army of devils rampaging through the streets of Mexico, at the heart of the story is a tale grounded in the all too real pettiness of humanity.
Chucho’s attempts to win back his beloved role in the Nativity Play starts off simple enough — heavy shouting and plenty of curse words. As the pastor (a man who’d rather be performing exorcisms than dealing with a stupid play) and Chucho face off in a battle of stubbornness, the situation gets progressively more and more desperate (and a whole lot weirder). While the movie never strays too much from its grounded sitcom scenario, the film’s messy blending of the supernatural, action scenes right out of a Michael Bay-lite film and unrelenting blasphemy make Pastorela a surreal viewing experience. Some of the stuff frankly comes out of nowhere but, when all is said and done, none of the weirdness is completely unwelcome.
Some of the humor, on the other hand, is lost in translation … or at least lost in the subtitle translation. Whoever did the work for Lionsgate left a lot to be desired with frequent typos and mistranslations finding their way into the subtitles.
The cornerstone of the film’s success lies in the performances. Joaquin Cosio is magnificent as Chucho. With an appearance like Andre the Giant and a sympathetic face to match, Cosio gives the role a much-needed point to relate to. Even as Chucho is swept up in the grasp of evil and becomes more and more like the devil he pines to dress as, the audience roots for him thanks to Cosio’s earnest performance The role is what is needed to keep Pastorela grounded as it nosedives into the fantastical.
Pastorela is a hard movie to classify. It’s a supernatural morality tale with black humor and some great horrific elements. Yet it doesn’t have any great pronouncements to make about society or religion and what pronouncements that do manage to sneak out from the film aren’t what you might expect in a Christmas movie. Evil is given frequent permission to run wild and the traditionally righteous (the police and the church) are cast as disruptive and even dangerous forces. But what else would you expect in a film about Nativity Plays than a plot that sees Satan as the protagonist?
Director: Emilio Portes
Notable Cast: Carlos Cobos, Eduardo Espana, Ana Serradilla and Joaquin Cosio
Writer(s): Emilio Portes